The road that leads to Blanca Torres' home isn't much of a road at all. It's a half-mile stretch of gravel and mud, surrounded by tall grasses. In certain parts, the road dips into stark potholes, and in others, large white rocks protrude from the earth.
When it rains, the road quickly turns to mud and Torres' family can’t get their cars out. Rain means her kids have to miss school and she has to miss work at a clothing alterations shop in Austin.
Torres, her husband and their two kids have lived in a mobile home on a plot of land in Del Valle for about a year. They used to live at Thrasher Lane Mobile Home Park in East Austin, but last May, the landowner told residents they had to leave and sold the property to developers.
Torres looked for mobile home parks that would take her home, but she was told the structure, built in 1996, was too old to accept. The family couldn’t find another affordable place to live in the city, so they moved out here.
“We didn’t have options,” Torres said in Spanish. “We had to move. You go or you go.”
They pay $400 a month for a spot about 40 minutes outside the city on land that had no hookups for water or electricity. At Thrasher, which had these hookups, they paid $325. Between moving the home and buying necessary supplies like a water tank, septic system and electric equipment, Torres said her family has spent around $18,000. And they still don’t have an internet connection or full air conditioning.
Torres, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico 14 years ago, said she never thought she’d end up in a situation like this, one with worse living conditions than what she saw in the country she left behind.
“Now, here where I live, it’s like I am in a ranch worse than the poorest one you would see in Mexico,” she said.
Torres and her family aren’t the only Austin mobile home owners grappling with the effects of displacement. Between 2015 and 2017, more than 50 households at Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park off Bastrop Highway in East Austin were relocated to make way for a 350-unit apartment complex.
According to a 2017 study by the Latino Research Initiative at UT Austin, 16 mobile home parks are at risk of development in the coming years. Researcher Gabriel Amaro determined that these parks, most of which sit in East Austin, lie in areas that are not designated for mobile home park use in the city’s Future Land Use plans. The study also found that 60 percent of residents of mobile home parks in Austin are Latino.
Conor Kenny of the City of Austin’s Planning Commission said the city has taken notice of the lack of protections for mobile home parks. He said CodeNEXT – the proposed change to the city’s land-development code – seeks to give the parks more attention. Many of them sit on land that is not zoned for them. That makes mobile home parks ripe for redevelopment at any time, he said.
“They have existing zoning that allows for something else to be built there, so there’s not a zoning change required and a developer can actually go through, raize the mobile home park to the ground, and build single-family homes there, without going to council or the Planning Commission for any of that,” Kenny said. “That’s the case for a lot of these mobile home parks under the existing code.”
If passed as is, CodeNEXT would rezone several of these mobile home parks as mobile home parks. Then, if landowners wanted to redevelop them, they would have to apply and get approval for a zoning change. Under the Tenant Notification and Relocation Assistance Ordinance, which City Council approved in 2016, they would also need to give residents 270 days' notice. The ordinance establishes a program to provide eligible residents relocation funds, too, but the city is still figuring out how this program will work.
Kenny said the measures provided in CodeNEXT could help protect people living in mobile homes in Austin now, but they wouldn't help people like Blanca Torres, who are already displaced. Thrasher Lane was one of those parks not zoned for mobile home parks, so there was little protecting the 17 households from being removed.
And, according to Kenny, building more mobile home parks in Austin isn’t likely.
“We can do a lot to preserve the ones that are already here," he said, "but as far as reviving Thrasher or any other park, I would like to think so, but I’m afraid they are just gone for good."